The Political History of Akwa Ibom State

By Etebong Akpan

Akwa Ibom being a microcosm of the larger Nigerian political turf shares in every political evolution that takes place in the country. The story of its creation is woven in political master stroke that defied the expectations of mischief makers. To some people outside the state, the political evolution of the people of this state is still a mystery as the state and her people were initially perceived to be the backwater of Nigerian politics despite her exploits in the different spheres of life.

The present day Akwa Ibom state which metamorphosed from the former mainland part of the old Cross River State no matter how it was perceived in the larger Nigeria used to dominate the politics of that state. The creation of the state in 1987 by General Ibrahim Babangida gave the people of Cross River a breather as they now claimed to have been released from the domineering influence of their over populated brother.

State creation also came with its own challenges especially in the area of political development. The once dominant power bloc in the old geographical entity was now a closed space that would latter throw out differences engineered by ego and greed coated on the template of ethnicity. Ethnic jingoist sprang up and capitalised on non existing tribal lines to stir up sentiments. But once such people are settled by the system they shut down shop leaving their supposed followers more confused and directionless.

The 1991 attempts at a return to democracy by the Ibrahim Babangida administration brought in Obong Akpan Isemin as the first elected civilian governor of the state on the platform of the National Republican Convention, NRC. Like what used to happen in the old Cross Rivers State, Isemin was brought in from Lagos by a certain group of politicians who flaunt working and leaving in Lagos as sign of civilisation and exposure. Isemin, an Ibibio was from Uyo senatorial district while his deputy, then Engr. Etom Okpoyo , an Oro from Eket senatorial district complemented the Speakership position which was zoned to Ikot Ekpene Senatorial district for ethnic balancing. That administration did not last long enough for a detailed political assessment. But one thing was clear, the Lagos versus home front political bickering that used to characterise the politics of old Cross Rivers state was not really feasibly. Even the ethnic champions’ warfare that characterised the different military administrations in the state was somehow in the doldrums. For the first time members of the winning NRC fought against the rival Social Democratic Party, SDP in the state irrespective of ethnicity. Though the SDP was more popular at the centre, its governorship candidate in the election, Arch Ekong Etuk who incidentally hailed from the same Etinan in Uyo senatorial district like Akpan Iseminj, party brotherhood was considered more important than blood relationship. Though the executive arm of government had a semblance of stability, it was not so for the legislature which within that period had three speakers in succession. That experiment collapsed with the annulment of the June 12, 93 presidential election by the Babangida administration. The annulment brought in political instability that forced the gapped tooth general from Minna out of power thus paving the way for his dark goggled friend and trusted ally, Sani Abacha to force out the interim government contraption that IBB left behind and installed himself as the head of state. Abacha who never had cause to smile for the period he held sway as the commander in chief did not waste time to sack all the democratic institutions that his predecessor laboured to put in place. His transition programme was the most dubious as he ended up being the only candidate adopted by all the political parties as their presidential candidate.

The dead of the maximum ruler, Sani Abacha in 1988 brought in Abdulsalam i Abubakar who initiated a hurried transition programme to return power to the civilians. That transition programme brought about the emergence of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alliance for Democracy, AD, the All Peoples Party, APP which later metamorphosed into the All Nigeria People Party, ANPP. A ll the three parties had significant presence in the state with the PDP being the dominant party in the state and the centre.

As usual with Akwa Ibom politics, another Lagos based Akwa Ibom person from Uyo senatorial district, Obong Victor Attah was presented by the PDP as its governorship standard bearer. The APP presented former governor, Obong Akpan Isemin as its candidate. Even though other smaller parties had their candidates, the race was really between Obong Attah and Obong Isemin who was now more or less the home candidate as against his first outing on the NRC platform. With the likes of Atuekong Donald Etiebet, Etukudoh Ekpro, Otu Robert and the rest, it was more or less a one sided contest as Obong Attah, an architect was preferred by the electorate probably because of the Lagos background.

Attah’s first baptism of fire came with the battle to control the structure of the party on the state. The ensuing battle for the soul of the PDP in the state left many politicians with political bruises and this marked the return of the politics of old Cross Rivers State in the state. Though Obong Attah succeeded in installing Chief Tony Emenyi as the chairman of the party, he did not find political peace as most members of the party who refused to follow their leader, Atuekong Etiebet to the rival ANPP stayed back and constituted themselves into an opposition within the system. This was the rebirth of Abuja Front which Chief Edet Isong as the factional chairman. The activities of this splinter group became very pronounced during the resource control struggle as they constituted a cog in the wheel of progress for the state. Members of the Abuja Front instead of joining the brothers at home to confront the federal government of then President Obasanjo to fight for the states’ interest chose to align with the federal government to malign the state. Senator Akpan James Udoedehe, then the senator representing Uyo senatorial district was the arrow head of opposition against resource control for the Niger Delta states.

Obong weathered the storm and survived the onslaught. Though the state lost the case at the Supreme Court it won through political settlement and all that was due the state was returned. The victory more or less got Obong Attah a second term in office in 2003 even though he had no tangible development project to show for the first four years as he was seen more or less as a victim of the federal might as represented by President Obasanjo.

In the second term election, Obong outwitted the likes of Ime Umana and Otuekong Idongesit Nkanga who contested the governorship on the platform of the ANPP and the NDP respectively. Ime Umana lost again at the tribunal and at the Appeal Court. His lost was another routine as nobody has ever won a governorship case at the election petition tribunal starting from Ekong Etuk to Akpan Isemin.

The problem of Abuja Font which was hitherto taught to have been long dead and buried resurfaced again towards the tail end of the Obong Attah administration as the party machinery was hijacked from him when he attempted to returned Chief Emenyi for a second term. In Emenyi’s place came Arch. Otu Ita Toyo who was brought in by Obong Ufot Ekaette, then the secretary to the Federal Government of Nigeria. The emergence of Toyo as the party chairman punctured Obong Attah’s plan to install his son in law, Udoma Ekarika as his successor. Barr. Godswill Akpabio, a commissioner in Obong Attah’s cabinet was however chosen in his place to become the standard bearer of the party in the state in the 2007 governorship election. Akpabio with Engr. Patrick Ekpotu, another commissioner in the Obong Attah;s government would later go on to win Mr. James Iniema of the Action Congress in the main election to become the third elected governor of the state.

Akpabio as usual was another Lagos boy that was preferred by the electorate. During Akpabio’s first term in office, a political group which was instrumental in mobilising the electorates for him, the AKPF was so popular that PDP , the platform the governor contested election on was usually considered as an afterthought. But the AKPF was to go extinct few years into the government when a rival group, Akwa Ibom Democratic Voice, ADV was formed shortly after the election to checkmate it. Today both AKPF and ADV do not exist.

Like Obong Attah, Akpabio’s only headache and distraction in his first term was Senator Udoedehe who was now a federal minister. Once a close ally who supported Akpabio against Udoma Ekarika, the senator was a torn in Akpabio’s flesh. What served Akpabio was that had a smooth working relationship with the presidency unlike Obong Attah who had a no love lost relationship with his then commander in chief.

Udoedehe did not only stop there, he jumped ship and declared for the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, that was the opposition party then in the south. The comical part of the entire charade was his surprise alignment of forces with his former traditional arch enemy, Obong Attah to fight Godswill Akpabio from having a second term. Obong Attah to the consternation of the entire world was the one who endorsed Udoedehe as the possible replacement for the PDP candidate to confirm the notion that in politics, anything can happen. If the game is not driven by interest one wonders what a man of Obong Attahs standing and reputation in the south south will be doing with a man who never wanted him to succeed for the period he held sway as the governor of the state. Another twist to the Obong Attah and Udoedehe political marriage was the making of Akpabio’s political foe of 2007 , Udoma Ekarika as Udoedehe’s campaign manager.

The ACN, and her governorship candidate never went close to making any impact in the election except the destruction of public property that got Udoedhe arrested. He lost woefully at the polls and proceeded to the election petition tribunal only to be knocked out on technical grounds for failing to file his case properly before the mandatory 180 days.
Udoedehe was not the only political drama in the 2011 governorship election in the state. Another member of the PDP, Obong Frank Okon who contested the party primaries with Akpabio later went round to declare himself the validly elected candidate of the party. Till today most followers of the political development the state are still baffled with why the case dragged on for the entire duration of Godswil’s second term even though a lot of people were made to understand that Frank had no case.

The Akpabio administration apart from other controversies will be remembered for having the highest turnover of deputies; three in its life span, a record that is only comparable to Lagos state under Bola Tinubu.

But by and large Akpabio completed his tenure and against all odds conducted a peaceful PDP governorship primary that produced Mr. Udom Emmanuel as the standard bearer of the party. As usual, Udom another Lagos boy was not sparred the hazel of the race as his candidature brought in a new phrase into the political lexicon of the state; the G 22. He survived it and went on to defeat the new opposition party that just emerged then in the country and state, the All Progressive Congress that had just won election at the centre. The APC candidate was not only defeated at the polls but was roundly beaten to confirm that the issue of zoning and the Lagos factor was very strong in Akwa Ibom politics. The APC went to court amidst division in its own house as Udoedehe again claimed that he was the candidate of the party and not Umanah Okon Umanah. Incidentally, Umana was Akpabio’s SSG until a year or so the elections when he was booted out of office. For the first time in the history of election petition cases, the opposition nearly had its way until the Supreme Court put spanner in the works and spoil the temporary victory they secured at the lower courts. The judgment deflated the steam of the opposition in the state and they have all gone under waiting for 2019 but it seems the PDP have pre-empted their moves as it has for the first time constitute a vibrant party executive to rebrand and re- engineer the party for the tasks ahead.

The political journey of the state so far in its short life span has come to confirm the submissions of Oyuekong Idongesit Nkanga, a former military administrator of the state that we don’t a political party rather that a political party is a mere platform to grab power. That is why you will people who were arch enemies on platform A yesterday coming together today on platform B to actualise their dream. Perhaps this tussle for power is what could have been responsible for an outsider like Prof. Ayandele to opine that the state is an atomistic society perpetually at war with itself. This notion was wrong and it will still remain wrong except one really get to understand the political configuration in the state. Akwa Ibom state has never been at any political war with itself, it is only the gang up of the elites to grab power with the youths serving as the cannon fodder to achieve that. These are the centrifugal and the centripetal forces that govern the state. So far Mr Udom Emmanuel is trying to maintain a centrist position refusing to align completely with any of the forces. That is the reason the recent congress of the party in the state went peacefully. Anything short of what happen would have been the beginning of the tussle and the war would have started for the profiteers to enter the battle field seeking for whom to devour for their selfish aim.